An Absolute MUST for Cross-Cultural Ministry: Part Two

How do we help our missions movements grow in their ability to work effectively across cultures?

In the previous blog post, we looked at the difficulties which the shorter-term mission movements in particular may have in the area of cultural intelligence. Clearly, short-term missions is a trend that isn’t going away, but missionaries need to be enculturated in order to be effective. In addition, the local church missions movements which are isolated from mission agencies are also at risk of making mistakes.

Part of the challenge we face is that for some, there may be a total unawareness that this is an issue at all. Cultural intelligence, cross-cultural communication, worldview and culture are not standard subjects in many Bible colleges. They are not the usual topics which churches teach their congregations. Many local churches are geared up to equip their members with the skills required for local ministry, but an extra layer of competence is required when we minister in a cross-cultural context. Unless we have intentionally sought to learn these skills, we may be in a state of unconscious incompetence.

The assumption is that success ‘here’ can be replicated ‘there.’

The ability to work effectively in another culture does not come “naturally.” On the contrary, what is intuitively correct in our culture can be completely reversed in another culture. Interviewees (in our particular study) point out that what helped us to be successful in our home ministry will not necessarily be immediately effective in another culture. An agency specialist, Roger, said:

“Just because you’re successful here does not mean you will be successful over there. Unfortunately, the model of what we see of all the huge churches that I know of, they pride themselves on being able to do this cross-culturally, isn’t true.”

One missions specialist in Singapore, James, highlighted the problems which occur when we build our missions programs on short-term efforts.

“The positive thing is that especially when the senior pastor is committed to mission, they are able to travel and actually go and see the field and have a feel for what’s going on there. They understand they need to relate with local leadership. The danger is sometimes that these bigger churches with their financial muscle may not be so aware of the danger of paternalism, of a new form of colonialism that Singaporeans may not realise.”

A church leader, Colin said, “People we send out are not well-prepared for the realities of context. So even if they are great evangelists at home or they have a great competency, we find that there is a gap between the reality of who they are [on the field].”

Another former missionary, Obed, spoke of his steep learning curve in his initial years. He learned through a difficult, slow process that he could not simply transfer his ministry practices in Singapore to his new context. He had prided himself on his ability to organize, and he took much effort to lay out a plan for his new indigenous partners that he was very proud of, “So I came up with the system and the associated documentation: hiring, how to monitor, everything else. It was a thick paper. My partner looked at it and he said it will not work.”

Another missionary, Tony, was critical of churches which come with pre-conceived ideas and solutions. “I think that most churches would think that way: what we have done here is a success, therefore wherever we go, doing the same things will be a success. So I think that there is a shortage of cultural intelligence.”

Realizing that this is an issue is only half the battle.

Discipleship across cultures is different

The net result of these mistakes is the inappropriate strategies, mentoring and discipleship programs we implement on the field:

  • The gospel message is communicated in words which do not make sense to the listeners (or worse, are miscommunicated).

  • We neglect contextualization and implement programs which are not reproducible after we leave.

  • Our indigenous partners start to feel controlled, especially when we use money in ways which control and breed dependency.

  • The people make “decisions for Christ” but are never truly transformed. The Gospel remains an alien form in their lives and in that culture.

In a similarly named article, Jonathan Rowe reports, “Christians from the South, though, described partnership with churches and agencies from the North as akin to dancing with elephants: too big, too powerful, and too clumsy.” (1) It is sad to see waves of well-meaning but misled efforts mission causing problems on the field.

And lest our young Asian movements (who themselves may have been on the receiving end of the paternalistic missionary practices before) think we are not guilty of such ethnocentric practices. Writer L. S. Tan said, “Lest we think the problem of control and power is primarily a ‘Western problem,’ we will see that the newer sending mission structures from Asia are also repeating the same mistakes. (2)

How to help the short-term movements grow in their CQ capacity

How do we help our congregations grow in CQ when their cross-cultural missions engagement is counted in weeks or months rather than years? And how do we complete the work amongst the unreached frontiers when the notion of “long-term” is now increasingly defined in commitments of one, two or three years?

I would like to make three suggestions:

1. We need ‘cultural bridges’ and coaches.

We need to pair the modern local church missions movement with experienced missions specialists who can help navigate the cultural, missiological and strategic issues. They are people who have done sufficient time in another culture to become enculturated. These people act as “cultural bridges” – with cultural know-how, guidance in contextualisation and relationship facilitators.

People in short-term programs will benefit greatly if they work in much more guided and integrated manner with such long-term practitioners. Partnership with mission agencies and/or other experienced practitioners on the field will enhance cross-cultural projects.

2. Don’t be in a hurry.

Cross-cultural work, especially amongst the unreached, is not simple. If it were simple, the work would be done by now. Our tendency is, however, to want quick results.

During one discussion with mobilization staff of a missions agency, the issue of expectations in the churches for time-bound results from their missionaries bubbled to the surface. It was described as the churches having a “short runway.” I asked what this meant. I was told that, “What we mean is that generally, it’s a limited timeframe given to bring about the required result. You just take off the mission to get the job done, to plant a church.”

In another interview, Senior Pastor Philip used the same “short runway” language to describe how he observed Singapore churches using money in very inappropriate ways, simply because they wanted to see quick results: “We have a missionary couple there . . . [They report that] Singapore churches are just throwing money in there. Instead of a long-term view, they are wanting to just take off.”

3. Know thyself. Know your host culture.

One of the consistent things that interviewees from Singapore recognize is their own weakness for over achievement, efficiency and productivity. This was mentioned, highlighted, joked about and agonized over in many of my interviews. On the positive side, this has helped make the nation become the success story that it is in the natural, but interviewees recognized that it sometimes does not translate well in cross-cultural work. A missions pastor, Amos, acknowledged that he had seen it become a weakness:

The strength can also be the weakness. Our organization and leadership in hierarchal structures can be a strength but also can become a weakness if we got all the cultures and tell them this is the way how you must do missions. There is a tendency in the church in Singapore of giving orders, more than partnering.

Another senior missionary, Don, described what happens when any cross-cultural work lacks CQ: “I think this is done by people who come in and they already have an idea of how things work. And they don’t study the culture or really do anything that really fits into the culture.”

Understanding our own cultural tendencies and blind spots is a key to learning how to work in other cultures. Underrating our host culture is just as critical, but many of the mistakes we make are bound in our own cultural assumptions and behaviours.

Conclusion: Cross-Cultural Discipleship Making is Different.

We are all called to make disciples. But making disciples across cultures requires us to acquire CQ. I like the way another missions blogger, Justin Long, articulated the idea, when he commented on what Lambert’s article said:

It took a long time for me to fully comprehend this. I have argued at times for the amateurization of mission, but I finally realized we were talking about two vastly different things. It is one thing to be a disciple-maker: and I fully believe THAT must be ‘amateurized’ out so that ANYONE can make disciples, because *everyone* is commanded to. But it is fully another thing to be a cross-cultural missionary. The two do not equate, and I do not believe the common trope that "everyone is a missionary." It takes a lot of skill, patience, and training to bring the Gospel across a linguistic, geographic, cultural, political, economic boundary. Training, and long-term support, encouragement and care are required. (3)

This is just the tip of the iceberg which risks sinking our missions boat. There is evidence to show that our movement is lacking adequate CQ. We are making mistakes. What is needed is more effective ways to infuse our short-term movement with better missiology, cultural intelligence and ministry capacity.

This discussion about the need for a more “processional” approach to missions is not aimed at limiting involvement and ownership in missions—by no means! However, the goal must be to extend training and equipping efforts and deepen the cross-cultural ministry capacity of the whole church.

Taking the time to grow in our cultural intelligence will pay dividends in our cross-cultural missions ministry. Long-term workers who are sent to work amongst the unreached have learned the essential nature of it, but other groups of people will also benefit: those in our local congregations who engage in what is becoming popularly known as “missions in our back yard,” and professionals and businesspeople who the Lord leads to other nations to work.


(1) Rowe, Jonathan. (2009). “Dancing with elephants: accountability in cross-cultural Christian partnerships.” Missiology, 37(2), 149–163, p. 1.

(2) Tan, Kang San. (2011). “Who is in the driver’s seat?” In K. S. Tan, J. Ingleby, & S. Cozens (Eds.), Understanding Asian mission movements: Proceedings of the Asian mission consultations, 2008-2010. Gloucester, UK: Wide Margin. Retrieved from (p. 51)

(3) Winter, Ralph. (1996, Spring). “The Re-Amateurization of Missions.” Retrieved from

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